Interactive map highlights poverty along CTA, Metra lines

Interactive map highlights poverty along CTA, Metra lines

How many times have you looked at a CTA map? Dozens, maybe hundreds, of times? Neat lines and colors, categorizing our city into eight colors and 144 dots.

But what if that map told you more about the people who lived there than just how to get to your destination?

That's what Christopher Whitaker wondered when he and co-creator Josh Kalov made CTApovertymap.org, an interactive online map that uses the city's own data to show us about the economic conditions around each CTA train station, as well as the Metra.

"One of the things that people are used to seeing is transit maps. It's something everyone can identify with--here's the red line that I take every day, here's my Metra station," said Whitaker, a recent graduate of DePaul's public administration graduate program. "I wanted to take something that people are used to seeing and turn that into a story about poverty in Chicago."

Each station on the map is categorized red or green--red for areas where the average income is below the poverty line for a family of four (around $23,000), and green for above the poverty line. When you click on each station, the map displays data on the percentage of residents in that community area that live in poverty, their average income and the "hardship index," a data point from the city that takes into account the crowdedness of area housing, poverty, resident age, unemployment and education level.

Just like every other person who's looked at this map, my first thought was to check out my own station--the Rockwell stop on the  brown line. It was green. The per capita income is $35,503, poverty rate of 9.5 percent and a hardship index of 16.

Well, that's the stop where I get off. But really, we live between the Rockwell and the Francisco stops, and Francisco is the point on the Brown Line where it switches from green to red. At Francisco, the average income is about $15,000 less at $20,355, nearly twice the percentage in poverty at 17.1 percent and a 56 on the hardship index.

Whitaker says the big shift is in part because the map judges each train stop by its community area, a geographic designation that lumps several neighborhoods together. His next step in the map is to narrow the data down to census tracts to make it more accurate. But even still, he says the map helps people understand the economic difference between neighborhoods that they might not notice otherwise.

"I think it just brings more awareness that there are parts of the city, even on the North Side, that are more impoverished than the rest of the city," said Whitaker. "The poverty map itself doesn't try to say anything other than 'Hey, this is where the more impoverished areas are.' We're not trying to say why this is. We're trying to say, be aware of this is where the areas are."

Of course, Francisco is nothing in comparison to many of the "red" stops on the South Side, some of which have hardship indexes in the 60s, 70s and even the 80s. At the Garfield stop on the Green Line, local residents have an average income of just $13,087 a year, and nearly 40 percent live in poverty. That neighborhood, Washington Park, has a hardship index of 88.

Whitaker says he wasn't surprised by the data. He already knew where the city's poor neighborhoods were. What he was surprised by was the response--so many people taking an interest in a subject they might ignore otherwise.

This is Whitaker's second big mapping enterprise. His first was part of his final project at DePaul, a map of all the social service resources in the city and data on how the state has funded those various offices over the last several years. Whitaker says he did it to show both how under-resourced many agencies have become, but also to create one database of agencies that exist to help.

"The unemployment office deals with unemployment, but they don't deal with health care. A health care-oriented organization may offer free treatment, but they're not necessarily equipped to help with rental assistance," said Whitaker, who says he works for a government entity. "There's not a solid way to find out where all those different things are. I wanted to put everything on a map to see where is everything."

Whitaker says he and Kalov were inspired by a similar map posted by Mapping London, which tracked life expectancy in that city by the map of the Underground. He says he's part of a larger movement of people with technological skills, like mapping and coding, who are connecting their work with public service, and points to sites like Open City Apps and the Code for America Brigade, which aim to provide more government accountability and transparency through technology.

"The response we've received has been amazing. People just were sharing it a lot and saying, 'Hey look at this,'" said Whitaker. "We were even featured in the Atlantic's Cities blog, which generated a lot of traffic to the site. "

I asked Whitaker if he thought he was a bit unusual--government employee by day, poverty-mapping superhero by night?

"I don't know if I'd call myself a superhero at this point," said Whitaker. "I don't think it's uncommon for people in public service to continue to think about these issues even after they clock out. To me, public service is a calling. It's a passion of mine."

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